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John Barrymore

The Acting Barrymore Family

In the autumn of 1875 John Drew Jr. brought home with him a fellow actor to visit with his family. The actor’s name was Maurice Barrymore and he had recently arrived in America from England to find work on the stage. Born Herbert Arthur Chamberlain Hunter Blyth (September 21, 1847 – March 26, 1905) in Amritsar, in Northern Punjab, India, he was the son of William Edward Blyth, a British civil servant, and Charlotte Matilda Chamberlain. It was assumed that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather into a career in the Indian Civil Service, but after his arrival in England for an education he found the stage more to his liking. He changed his name, apparently, to “Maurice Barrymore” as it sounded more regal and dynamic for a theater career. He was a handsome man with a charismatic personality that could enchant the ladies. As described by the Chicago News drama critic Amy Leslie: “To look upon, to watch, to listen to Maurice Barrymore in a congenial part is to behold nature in her liveliest pleasantness. He is about as near a desirable man to see across the footlights as the stage shall ever grant us.” (p. 17) This dashing actor would steal the heart of Georgie Drew, and over the protestations of her mother, married Maurice on December 31, 1876.

What resulted from this merging of acting talent were three children who would leave their mark on the stage and films of Hollywood. Lionel Herbert Barrymore (April 28, 1878 – November 15, 1954) was the first born followed by Ethel Mae Blyth Barrymore (August 15, 1879 – June 18, 1959) and then John Sidney Blyth Barrymore on February 15, 1882. All three were born in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of their grandmother, who became their primary guardian while their parents traveled the country in acting troupes. Mrs. John Drew gave her grandchildren a steady and grounded lifestyle that they so desperately needed at this time. She made sure they got an education and gave them a positive viewpoint of acting that would eventually steer them towards the stage. Georgie and Maurice’s marriage was fraught with difficulties caused by frequent absences and Maurice’s roving eye towards a pretty face. The children were largely insulated from these circumstances and had stability in the care of their grandmother. They may have felt the tension between their parents, but experienced consistency in their daily lives while their parents were away working.

In 1893 their mother contracted tuberculosis and her doctor advised her to relocate to a warmer climate. Georgie, who was accompanied by Ethel who was thirteen at the time, set out for California, where they settled in Santa Barbara. Georgie’s health did not improve there and she died on July 2. Ethel was responsible for returning her mother’s body back to Philadelphia, where it was buried in the family plot in Mount Vernon Cemetery. Maurice, who initially was in shock and felt some remorse for his actions during their marriage, found comfort a few months after her death by marrying a stage manager’s daughter named Mamie Floyd. Ethel, who found out about her father’s remarriage from a newspaper announcement, never forgave him for his quick replacement of her mother.

The Drew-Barrymore family was now beginning the process of evolving from a self-contained unit to one of disconnect and independence. Maurice and his new wife were traveling the country in various stage productions. Lionel, who had initially pursued the muse of art and drawing, was now attempting acting and finding it somewhat profitable, though still concerned about whether it would be a permanent career choice for him. Ethel knew acting would be her calling and had headed off to London in the cast of Secret Service. John was the lone remnant living with his beloved grandmother. At fifteen John was at the bedside of Mrs. John Drew when she died in 1896. As Lionel would comment about John’s reaction to her death: “He never felt safe after that. I am inclined as the shadows grow longer to the theory that he was in revolt against the whole insecure pattern of life, and that the insecurity sprang from the collapse of his frame of reference when Mum Mum (Mrs. John Drew) died when he was fifteen.” (pp. 49-50)

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